Landslides and Mudslides

Landslides occur when masses of rock, earth or debris move down a slope. Mudslides, also known as debris flows or mudflows, are a common type of fast-moving landslide that tends to flow in channels.

What Causes Landslides and Mudslides?

Landslides are caused by disturbances in the natural stability of a slope. They can happen after heavy rains, droughts, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Mudslides develop when water rapidly collects in the ground and results in a surge of water-soaked rock, earth and debris. Mudslides usually begin on steep slopes and can be triggered by natural disasters. Areas where wildfires or construction have destroyed vegetation on slopes are at high-risk landslides during and after heavy rains.

Health Threats from Landslides and Mudslides

In the United States, landslides and mudslides result in 25 to 50 deaths each year. The health hazards associated with landslides and mudslides include:

  • Rapidly moving water and debris that can lead to trauma.
  • Broken electrical, water, gas and sewage lines that can result in injury or illness.
  • Disrupted roadways and railways that can endanger motorists and disrupt transport and access to health care.

What Areas Are at Risk?

  • Some areas are more likely to experience landslides or mudslides, including:
  • Areas where wildfires or construction have destroyed vegetation.
  • Areas where landslides have occurred before.
  • Steep slopes and areas at the bottom of slopes or canyons.
  • Slopes that have been altered for construction of buildings and roads.
  • Channels along a stream or river.
  • Areas where surface runoff is directed.

Protect Yourself

Before Intense Storms and Rainfall

  • Assume that steep slopes and areas burned by wildfires are vulnerable to landslides and mudslides.
  • Learn whether landslides or mudslides have occurred previously in your area by contacting local authorities, a county geologist or the county planning department, state geological surveys or departments of natural resources or university departments of geology.
  • Contact local authorities about emergency and evacuation plans.
  • Develop emergency and evacuation plans for your family and business.
  • Develop an emergency communication plan in case family members are separated.
  • If you live in an area vulnerable to landslides, consider leaving it.

During Intense Storms and Rainfall

  • Listen to the radio or watch TV for warnings about intense rainfall or for information and instructions from local officials.
  • Be aware of any sudden increase or decrease in water level on a stream or creek that might indicate debris flow upstream. A trickle of flowing mud may precede a larger flow.
  • Look for tilted trees, telephone poles, fences or walls, and for new holes or bare spots on hillsides.
  • Listen for rumbling sounds that might indicate an approaching landslide or mudslide.
  • Be alert when driving. Roads may become blocked or closed due to collapsed pavement or debris.
  • If you see a landslide or mudslide starting, quickly move away from the path of the slide. Getting out of the path of a mudslide is your best protection. Move to the nearest high ground in a direction away from the path. If rocks and debris are approaching, run for the nearest shelter and take cover (under a desk, table or other piece of sturdy furniture).

After a Landslide or Mudslide

  • Stay away from the site. Flooding or additional slides may occur after a landslide or mudslide.
  • Check for injured or trapped people near the affected area, if it is possible to do so without entering the path of the landslide or mudslide.
  • Listen to the radio or TV for emergency information.
  • Report broken utility lines to the appropriate authorities.
  • Consult a geotechnical expert (a registered professional engineer with soils engineering expertise) for advice on reducing additional landslide problems and risks. Local authorities should be able to tell you how to contact a geotechnical expert.

Information adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.